Weird Like Wilco

Why their new record terrified the record execs.

Wilco, according to my Webster’s New World College Dictionary, is radiotelephony code for “I will comply with your request.” Yet last year, when Reprise execs ordered the celebrated alt-country band Wilco to normalize their electronically eccentric new album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the band reprised the classic John Cleese line: “Can do—but won’t!”

The result: Reprise defenestrated Wilco, its fellow Warner Bros. label Nonesuch scooped up the band, massed choirs of rebel-friendly critics sang hosannas, first-week sales approximately tripled Wilco’s previous sales, Grammys beckon, and the ruckus boosted this summer’s forthcoming movie I Am Trying To Break Your Heart about the making of the album.

Was it all a hoax? Did Reprise secretly collude with Nonesuch, faking a philistine assault to rile rock’s herd of independent minds, stoke publicity, and score history’s first example of actual corporate synergy? It would be pretty to think so. In fact, though, Reprise’s move probably reflects the industry’s inundation by the bonehead notion that all cultural products can be extruded in standardized forms and marketed scientifically.

But you can see why provoked executive fear and loathing. Wilco seemed the ideal marketing opportunity: cult heroes, fresh from founder Jeff Tweedy’s triumph of setting Woody Guthrie’s lyrics to music with Billy Bragg, poised to cash in on the post-O Brother, Where Art Thou? roots revival. Expecting the band’s usual mix of Beatles-y pop and grainy Americana, the execs instead encountered a ghastly gale of electronica with air-raid-siren obbligato, this microphone-strapped-to-a-rocket-sled-in-a-wind-tunnel moment, and this tape-hissy fit of otherworldly dirge—a tune that might’ve been titled “Depression in Heaven.”

If I were the suit in the executive suite, I would’ve gone pale, too. Yet Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is no incomprehensible Trans (the bizarre electronic Neil Young record that understandably provoked his label’s wrath). Rumors of its extraterrestrial origin are exaggerated. Though it’s festooned with electronic and aleatoric sounds, it’s much closer to that old-time-roots rock religion than it is to Radiohead. It’s like a PalmPilot in the pocket of a well-worn flannel shirt.

Despite its oddball percussion track (were they hitting tuna cans?), “Kamera” is just a catchy traditional tune. “Jesus, Etc.” performs the patented Wilco trick of couching downbeat sentiments (“voices escape singing sad sad songs/ tuned to chords strung down your cheeks/ bitter melodies”) in sweet melodies perky as a commercial. “Heavy Metal Drummer” blows a sweet kiss to KISS cover bands, “beautiful and stoned” in fond, hazy memory. “I’m the Man Who Loves You”—with its countrified instrumentation, jangly guitars trading licks with sassy brass, and backup galoots crooning “whoo-whoo!”—is irresistibly upbeat. And yes, there is a Fab Four flavor to tunes like “Pot Kettle Black” and “Poor Places,” which meanders from classic rock to pretty piano figures to defiantly weird experimental music.

For the most part, Wilco handles the muted alarm clocks, kitchen-tile xylophones, squeaky wheelchairs, Capt. Nemo organ rolls, robot bird-song, and snatches of ham-radio transmissions in a thoughtful, calibrated, musical way that seldom overwhelms the songs’ sturdy structure. In “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” Tweedy’s familiar surly drunk of a narrator intones a litany of neo-Hank Williams self-pity (“You were so right when you said I’ve been drinking/ What was I thinking when we said good night”) accompanied by sullen drums, plinky keyboards, and a floaty electronic line that’s the sonic equivalent of the metal confetti that fighter jets emit to confound heat-seeking missiles. The arty experimental music successfully blends with tradition—the problem is Tweedy’s usual sin, the temptation to drone. His wandering melodies are not goal-oriented; sometimes they just go around in circles, like a dog flattening a patch of grass for a nice long snooze. Also, the guy’s lyrics are repetitive even by rock standards: “It’s a war on war/ it’s a war on war/ it’s a war on war/ it’s a war on war/ it’s a war on war/ it’s a war on war/ it’s a war on war/ there’s a war on.” The lyrics on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are a cut below Wilco’s Being There album, and Woody Guthrie’s shade should take Tweedy to the woodshed.

Still, if this record really does win Grammys, I won’t complain. Its electronic oddness knows its musical place. It’s a down-home sound, really. It puts me in mind of an anecdote from Jimmy McDonough’s new Neil Young bio. Young put Graham Nash in a rowboat, rowed the two of them to the middle of his lake, and played the Harvest album for him for the first time. Young’s house was wired up as the left speaker, and his entire barn as the right speaker. When somebody on shore asked Young how he liked the sound, he hollered, “MORE BARN!”

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is electronic worlds away from the stripped-down sound of classic alt-country. But what makes it good is—it has plenty of barn.